Saturday 20 October 2007


We had 'ummed' and 'arred' about going to Drusilla's Wildlife Park on the way home on Monday. In the end, we decided to call in as we did have to basically pass the entrance to it on our return journey. We were both astounded by it, and found that it was not at all what we were expecting. It is quite simply a fantastic place to spend a couple of hours - or even a whole day. The residents all looked happy and content and the enclosures were up to date and animal-friendly. The outside cages had the usual wire, but only on the top half, with the area around the bottom half being made up of glass panels so that visitors could see inside. The living quarters were full of well-thought out contents and were well kept and clean.

The whole place is neat and tidy and well cared for - one thing that was very noticeable immediately was the presence of a good compliment of staff who were all very friendly and approachable.

There are little 'Animal Spotter' booklets for the children to stamp - reminiscent of the 'I-Spy' books I had as a child - and a very clever little 'Zoolympics Challenge Record Book' for them to fill in which gives them a chance to compare, for example, how long they can jump in relation to a wallaby. This is achieved by cleverly placing a miniature 'long-jump' area for them to try out. This place really gets the young involved, and the paths around the zoo are well signposted and littered with well-thought out information points, geared up to teaching children and adults alike, about the animals in residence.

There is a huge play area for the children, but this is not reached until after all the animals have been visited. The front cover of the guidebook states 'no ordinary zoo' and they have definitely got that right!

Apart from the tamarinds, which I absolutely adore, my favourites here were the porcupines, and the capybara. The porcupines are usually in bed during the day, but as their room-mates (yellow mongooses) were being fed, they decided to come out and see what was up for grabs. Looking a bit like giant mobile mint humbugs with their stripey spines, they bumbled about collecting as much food as they could. And as for their hairdos, well what can I say?

The capybara, I realised with embarrassed amusement, was actually answering a very long and protracted call of nature, but didn't seem to bat an eyelid as he went about his 'business' while I was taking photos. However, I didn't feel it quite right to continue photographing him, so when I cottoned on I left him to it.

Talking of bats, the fruit bat enclosure was amazing. Once through the heavy plastic blinds that hang across the doorway, we found ourselves right in amongst them, rather than peering through glass or wire. They were just hanging around, minding their own business, with their wings wrapped around their little bodies. I like bats, but I can see why some people think of them as rather malevolent - I suppose they could be described as looking like evil seed pods, twitching every so often as if threatening to open up and release spores of destruction (or is that just my over-active imagination?). One of them was even on the floor by our feet, and at first we wondered whether it was OK, but it then decided to crawl its way across to the other side of the room, and clamber up the wall back to a roosting spot on an overhanging branch.

And there is a bug house too, full the usual spiders, stick insects and millipedes etc, but the vivs are sympathetic to their needs and obviously well tended. There is also a fantastic colony of leaf-cutter ants, which I could just sit and watch for ages as they go about their business, marching back and forth with their booty in neat lines of single lane traffic.

We could not spend as much time as we would have liked at Drusillas as we still had a six hour journey home to face, but we will certainly revisit if we are in the area.

Just a quick game of 'stone-scissors-paper'

On safari

On the Sunday of our weekend away in Sussex, Jon and I went to Port Lympne Wild Animal Park & Gardens near Hythe in Kent. It is set in 600 acres with a mansion and 15 acres of landscaped gardens. It was a beautiful day, so we set off with enthusiasm for a day's exploration and arrived there around lunchtime. It is our plan to travel around all of the country's zoos and wildlife parks over the coming years, and do a spot of photography and filming - Port Lympne was the closest of the two John Aspinall ventures to where we were based (the other being Howletts near Canterbury). Taking in journey time, we plumped for the former. John Aspinall set these two parks up with the aim of breeding protected and endangered species and returning them to safe areas in the wild.

We hopped on the transport that would take us around the park 'on safari', and off we trundled. The trip takes about an hour, with a stop off at the far end of the park, which gives those travelling a chance to stretch their legs, rub their sore bottoms from the bumpy ride, and refresh parched throats at the watering hole there. There is also a 'Discovery Zone' to investigate - basically a tropical area with snakes, an iguana, zebra mice, a chameleon, cockroaches and such like. Jon was very excited to see a tree shrew - the great ancestor of all primates which has hands instead of paws.

We had noticed, upon arrival, that the mansion and garden area were closed to the general public for a private function - but even though I thought that perhaps there was a wedding, I had not been prepared for what I witnessed on our return from the 'safari'.

We were deposited back to the main rest area after our ride, and the place was heaving with wedding guests, which is fair enough. However, it was very weird to see ladies in their sunday best, complete with posh frocks, hats and high heels, and men in morning suits with shiny silk waistcoats hauling themselves, somewhat tipsily, up the steep steps into the army type vehicles for a wedding tour around the park- not one pith helmet in sight lol. The bride climbed aboard too, still in her wedding dress and still holding her bouquet . All very surreal. A very original and interesting theme for a wedding indeed - a safari to Kenya for a honeymoon would be a dream come true, but I suppose a safari on your wedding day around a wildlife park is the next best thing!

It was good to see rhinos, zebras, antelope, giraffes and wildebeest all roaming freely around the large expanse of fields. The only criticism about the tour, though, was that, although there was the usual 'on your right you will see' commentary, this did not really explain anything about the animals - where they were from etc. The vehicle also did not stop very often on route in order for you to observe the animals for any length of time or to allow the odd photograph to be taken.

Apart from seeing my favourite animal - the timber wolf - the other highlight of the afternoon, for me, was seeing the giraffes so close you could have reached out and touched them. The cutest, however, was the baby rhino, who stood with its mum at the edge of the field chomping away on its carrots, seemingly totally oblivious of the attention it was attracting from the humans on the other side of the barrier.

Perhaps it was because it was a Sunday, but there did not seem to be a great presence of staff pottering about doing maintenance or such like. Some of the animals that were enclosed in cages did not look particularly happy and content, and some seemed agitated - the dholes, for example, displayed the typical boredom trait of pacing up and down their perimeter fencing, whining as they did so. Or perhaps it was just near feeding time, I don't know.

We had a fairly enjoyable day, but were disappointed that there was no guidebook - just a map of the grounds, which was not very clear -or perhaps both of us were being particularly thick that day. The caged enclosures were a bit old-fashioned and reminiscent of zoos in the past where animals were just kept for people to gawp at, but perhaps over time these will be replaced with more up to date, animal-friendly enclosures.

All in all, we were glad we had visited - it had its bad points, but did have some good ones too. We meandered our way back to Hastings across Romney Marshes just as the sun was setting. The mists were rising from the fields, which gave the appearance that we were driving through a film-set for Hallowe'en 21 or whatever the number is up to now - it was really ghostly, yet beautiful at the same time.

I shall skip back a couple of evenings here to when we first arrived at the Hastings Travelodge (well, we have come to like Travelodges) on Friday night. We had been welcomed by a young lad by the name of Toby who, with great embarrassment, informed us that, although we had a room booked, the key for said room had winged itself back to Ireland in the handbag of the previous occupant. Added to this the fact that there was no spare key other than the master, we could not have access to our room without the accompaniment of the master-key holder.

After a seven hour drive, this is something that would normally make one reach across the counter and grab the receptionist firmly by the neck and squeeze the very life out of them until they produced a spare key, but the way in which the information had been delivered just made both Jon and I burst out laughing. From then on, we found that the staff at this particular branch were a little ‘odd’ to say the least. Most of them seemed to be in their twenties and all seemed to possess little idiosyncracies not usually found in staff of such establishments. James, for example, possessed an outlandish ‘gift of the gab’ accompanied by the wildest gesticulations and facial expressions, usually only found in vaudeville halls.

It was as if this particular establishment had been forgotten by the big-wigs at head office, and was running under its own rules and regulations. The staff were all great fun and made our stay there most entertaining.

And no, the key did not arrive on Saturday as promised, so we were moved to another room and treated to a free breakfast for our discomfort.

Thursday 18 October 2007


For Jon's birthday, I bought him a mobile phone to replace the ancient one that he had, which had long since given up the ghost.

Last Monday, on our way back from Hastings, we stopped in at Drusilla's Animal Park where we did a spot of filming. Jon had just undertaken some pieces to camera and was checking that they had come out OK, so while he was doing so, I amused myself by taking some photos of the general vicinity. In the course of doing this, I took these pictures of Jon, which, when I looked at them later, lended themselves perfectly to a bit of wifely playfulness (all in the best possible taste of course) and - with full permission of the victim himself - I present them, with tongue firmly in cheek and a wicked glint in my eye, to you below:

"This is a funny looking phone"

"I can't hear you!"

"I am not so sure this IS a phone you know"

"Hello?! **##**"

"What's that dear? It's a video camera?"

"Hmm, why didn't someone tell me that before. Now I feel like a right dog's dinner ...."

Tuesday 16 October 2007

All day long they stood there and we could not move them

1066. Life was fragile in those dark days and could be easily snuffed out like a candle flame - if you survived infancy, you were lucky to make old bones. On October 14th of that year, many certainly did not. No precise figures are available, but it is thought that each opposing side had between 5,000 and 7,000 men – in those days no mean number - and no records exist on the exact numbers killed.

Upon Senlac Hill, recorded at sometime between 9 and 10 am, began the battle that would change the history of England. The shield wall stood its ground, so tightly packed that it was reported that ‘the dead could scarcely fall and the wounded could not remove themselves from the action’. No matter what your thoughts may be as to whom had the rightful succession to the English throne at that time in history, you cannot but applaud Harold’s efforts. After taking his army up north to Stamford Bridge and defeating King Harald Hardrada, and Harold’s own brother Tostig, and then having to march back down to the south coast to meet this new, somewhat unexpected, threat took a great determination. I say unexpected – Harold had been waiting for an invasion, but had thought that as the autumn gales had begun, making sea journeys unfavourable, it would not arrive until the spring.

It would seem that he was, quite simply, caught out by the weather – something, of course, that still plagues all of us who live in this green and pleasant land to this day. However, the lazy Sunday afternoon cricket match, summer fete or wash day does not quite compare to that ill-fated day in October nearly 950 years ago!

This past weekend saw the annual two-day re-enactment of King Harold’s brave effort to thwart the taking of the English throne by William, Duke of Normandy. Jon and I travelled down to East Sussex on Friday in order that we could witness this major event in the calendar for ourselves on Saturday. It is something I have wanted to experience for many years and the event did not disappoint. It is one of those dates that are drummed into you at primary school, and to stand upon that field is humbling – even emotional. I have great respect for those ‘English’ men who fought and died upon that bloodied field 941 years ago.

Apart from the excitement of the ‘battle’ itself, the day was educational for those watching – there were talks about the falconry of the day, demonstrations of hand to hand fighting, horsemanship and archery. The sheer weight of armour and weaponry is one of those things not easily imagined. My battle-axe and broadsword are pretty hefty, but when I picked up a pair of chainmail gauntlets at one of the encampment market tents, I was astounded as to quite how heavy they were – add to that a helm and shield, and then fight in them for hours! Respect indeed.

I was itching to join the melee - I just wish I had taken my bow, battle-axe and sword with me! Mind you, I am not as fit as I should be, so I would probably have just collapsed under the weight of it all …

Friday 5 October 2007

Please mind the gap

A trip to London always promises to be an exhausting affair – jostling for position on trains, trying to work out which tube to get, and trying to side-step the seething mass of humanity on the crowded tube, stations and pavements.

Last Sunday afternoon, Jon and I travelled to Kings Cross, where we had booked a couple of nights at the local Travelodge. It seemed the most central spot for what we were planning to do, and actually, it proved to be a really quiet place to stay, considering its locale. The train into Paddington was packed to say the least – I think that a lot of the passengers were students starting back at their relevant universities – there were definitely a lot of under-25s alighting at both Bristol and Bath. Old codgers like Jon and I sat in our sardine-squashed positions, not daring – or even able – to move for most of the journey.

King’s Cross was surprisingly quiet – even for a Sunday evening. On my previous jaunts to visit Shosh at the International Halls in Russell Square - where she was billeted during her first year at uni - it was much busier than last Sunday. You could almost accuse it of being civilised this time round. Once we had deposited our baggage in our hotel room, we went off in search of a refreshing drink, a cigarette (or two) and something to eat. The first two were satisfied at O’Neill’s on the corner of Judd Street (a place I had often thought looked inviting on the above mentioned trips to the Halls) where we could sit outside and partake of the evil weed and drink a cooling draught. However, we did not fancy the food on offer and, after listening to the live band – well duo really – we wandered off in the general direction of Euston Station, hoping to find a little bistro or some such place where we could satisfy our jaded palates. It was not to be, however, and we eventually gave up and trundled back towards our hotel, after stopping off at one of the several mini-supermarkets that were still open, to stock up on some provisions.

We had both forgotten that London prices are not the same as Woolsery prices and were quite stunned when it came to paying for our fairly meagre picnic supper. And as for paying £3.00 for a bottle of beer in the Travelodge – well say no more.

Perhaps you would like to know the reason of our visit down to London? Well, it was not to visit the Queen I can assure you. Shosh was to receive a prize for getting the third highest mark in the end of third year exams at the Royal Vet College so we were off to clap like mad - and whoop and whistle - when she did so. She has worked so hard these last three years and it was a very proud moment to see her receive her award – well done sweetie, you thoroughly deserve it. It seems such a long time ago now that her father and I drove her down to London and left her alone in the big city. It was one of the worst moments of my life (doing the same with her sister wasn’t much better either). To leave your child alone in such a place is awful and goes against all motherly instincts. Some youngsters cannot wait to leave home, and throw themselves into university life with great gusto, but equally, there are those who are, by nature, quiet and shy and although they really want to go on to further study, the prospect of doing so is daunting.

Shosh is one of the latter and she had to spend almost a week by herself, before the start of her course, trying to make friends, getting to know her way around London, and learning to cope for the first time by herself. I still don’t know how she did it, but she took herself out on the buses and trains alone, and coped a hell of a lot better than I know I would have done. She grew up a lot in that first year – she had to – and to see her get her award on Monday was fantastic.

We rounded off the evening with a trip to Covent Garden and enjoyed a particularly nice meal at the Palm Court Brasserie – one of those delightful places that cater for pre-theatre dinners or after-performance suppers.

On Tuesday, Jon and I decided to visit London Zoo – neither of us had been there for many years, and both of us did not have fond memories of the place. We were both pleasantly surprised at its turnaround, though, and came away thinking that it was probably one of the best zoos we had ever visited. Unfortunately, we did not manage to see absolutely everything, as we ran out of time before the zoo closed for the day, so we have made a mental note to return there next time we are down in the London area.

Radiated tortoise
(Geochelone radiata)

Green mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps)

Although we were both physically exhausted from being on our feet all day, neither of us really wanted to go back to the hotel room until the last possible moment. We made our way back to Paddington, and decided to stop off for a coffee at the place where we had first met back in March 2005 – awwww, how romantic - apart from the fact that another couple were sitting in ‘our seat’ – tsk. Jon threatened to oust them unceremoniously, but I managed to persaude him that this course of action would probably not endear us to the establishment's staff, and may even result in us being banned from 'our place' for the rest of our lives!

We were both really tired and nearly fell asleep on the comfy sofa, but, in a flash of renewed, and probably over-enthusiastic, vigour, we decided to take advantage of our cheap day travelcards and visit some of the sights. Well why not? The night was young, even if we were not, so we staggered to our feet, and with creaking limbs made our way to do battle with the underground once more.

We visited Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus, and .... well that was it actually. It had reached the stage where we were swinging one leg in front of the other with the aid of a hand on the back of the thigh, so we decided that it was probably a good idea to make our way back to King’s Cross .... and food. This time, we had oodles of noodles in the local noodle-bar.

Come Wednesday, we were still hobbling, and although it had been a great two days, we were relieved to leave the metropolis and return back to the serenity of Woolsery. This time, the train journeys were trouble-free, as neither the tube nor the mainline trains were busy at that time of day. We both had two seats to ourselves from Paddington, and travelled in relative luxury to Tiverton, where we were met by Graham.

We are both now back on bank and car duties - c'est la vie.